In the fall of 1964, the Hanley Fire roared up the slopes of what is now the Pepperwood Preserve, scarring redwood trees as the fir blew through and marched toward Santa Rosa. Preserve manger Michael Gillogly gives scale to the trees, Thursday Sept. 12, 2013. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2013

Redwood Empire fire history remains visible in wild spots

Black streaks run 40 feet up the trunks of a ring of redwoods in the Pepperwood Preserve off Porter Creek Road in the Mayacmas Mountains northeast of Santa Rosa.

The trees are healthy, silently bearing the scars of the epic wildfire of September 1964 that rattled Santa Rosa's nerves before it was stopped about 100 feet from the door of the old Community Hospital on Chanate Road.

Nearly all of the 3,200-acre preserve was scorched as 70 mph winds, close to hurricane strength, blasted the Hanly fire from Calistoga through Knights Valley, Franz Valley and down the Mark West Canyon to what was then the northeast outskirts of Santa Rosa.

At 52,700 acres, the Hanly fire is the largest in Sonoma County — and fourth-largest in the Redwood Empire — in the last half-century.

It pales in comparison to California's mega-fires, including the 255,560-acre Rim Fire still burning in and around Yosemite National Park, now the state's third-largest wildfire since the 1930s.

Firefighters and forest ecologists say it's unlikely the Redwood Empire will ever see such massive blazes, but destructive wildfires regularly erupt in the region, as they do all over the state.

The Hanly fire, ignited when a deer hunter tossed a cigarette into dry grass on the slope of Mount St. Helena in Napa County, remains as testimony to what happens when California's recreation-friendly Mediterranean climate bakes grass, brush and trees dry every summer.

"All it needs is an ignition source," said Michael Gillogly, the Pepperwood Preserve manager, standing on an east-facing slope that the Hanly fire's flames raced up 49 years ago. "It could burn any time."

Firefighters and forest ecologists agree: About 4,400 wildfires a year, covering nearly 220,000 acres, according to a recent five-year average reported by Cal Fire, are part of the circle of life and death in California.

"Fire is another of those processes built into the landscape," said Rick Mowery, a Mendocino National Forest fire ecologist. "A lot of California relies on fire to function in a healthy way."

Over thousands of years, the state's flora and fauna have adjusted to fire, Mowery said. Species that couldn't tolerate it "were gone long ago."

Nobcone pines can't propagate without fire, while Ponderosa pines and redwoods are cloaked in thick bark that insulates them from all but the hottest fires.

In the wake of the 29,526-acre Mill Fire in July 2012, green sprouts of oak trees and brush emerged, only to be bitten off "by something looking for lunch," he said.

However, the Mill Fire, which threatened the Colusa County town of Stonyford, occurred close to and under the same weather conditions that bolstered the tragic Rattlesnake Fire of July 1953 in which 15 firefighters were overrun and killed by flames after a shift in the wind.

Both fires erupted in the 1.1 million-acre Mendocino National Forest, which runs through parts of Lake, Mendocino, Colusa, Glenn, Tehama and Trinity counties.

The forest, managed and protected by the U.S. Forest Service, has had 29 fires of more than 1,000 acres since 1966, including four of the Redwood Empire's five largest fires, ranging from about 42,000 to 83,000 acres.

Winds up to 30 mph fanned the region's largest blaze, the Fork Fire of August 1996, which doubled in size in one day and ultimately burned 83,057 acres in Lake County, mostly in the national forest and coming within 1.5 miles of the community of Upper Lake.

Mowery said he expects the forest's larger fires to remain in the 20,000- to 60,000-acre range, largely because of topography. Valleys and foothills flank the east and west sides of the national forest, while roads and ridgelines give firefighters a chance to limit fire movement to the north or south, he said.

Sonoma County's recent fire history includes 13 major wildland blazes since 1964, with all but the Hanly Fire between 1,300 and 12,000 acres. "The potential is always there," said Eric Hoffmann, division chief of Cal Fire's Sonoma-Lake-Napa unit.

With less than seven inches of rain in Santa Rosa since Jan. 1 — one-third of the 30-year average — the region's wildfire fuels are drier than usual, he said.

Cal Fire's local unit monitors a chaparral shrub called chamise for moisture content, considering less than 60 percent a "critical point."

Samples from the Geysers typically reach that point around Oct. 15, and they already are below it now, Hoffmann said.

Still, the Redwood Empire's worst fires are only one-third to one-half as large as California's biggest conflagrations, including three in San Diego County that covered 175,000 to 273,000 acres.

Redwoods that grow abundantly here are less prone to burning than San Diego's brush and the damp ocean breeze also suppresses fire, said Marshall Turbeville, a Cal Fire battalion chief based in Sonoma County.

Southern California fires are propelled by the area's notoriously hot, dry Santa Ana winds, he said, noting that wind is "the predominant driver of fire behavior."

The Hanly Fire was a case in point. A day after it broke out, the fire reached Calistoga and was moving east. On the third day, it bolted south toward Sonoma County, with wind-driven embers advancing the blaze.

On the night of Sept. 21, 1964, firefighters and citizen volunteers made their stand against the Hanly Fire on Chanate Road, Parker Hill Road and on Mendocino Avenue as the northern sky glowed red, the winds kept shifting and fears mounted concerning the defenseless patients inside the hospital.

Fire Marshal Michael Turnick, who was in charge, climbed aboard a giant bulldozer and cut a 30-foot firebreak in the fire's path.

Had the wildfire jumped Chanate Road, it likely would have roared down Humboldt Street into the junior college neighborhood, over the Hillcrest area and down into Town & Country and the Grace Tract, ravaging homes with shake roofs.

A repeat of the Hanly fire, which swept from Calistoga to Santa Rosa in about half a day, is possible, he said, as is a repeat of the Creighton Ridge Fire of 1978 that burned more than 11,000 acres of timberland and destroyed 64 homes in the Cazadero area.

"That whole area would burn just as it did in 1978," Hoffmann said.

There nearly was another Hanly Fire in October 1996, when the Porter Creek Fire ignited nine miles northeast of Santa Rosa on an eerily warm Saturday night and spread into the Franz Valley Road area, threatening homes worth more than $10 million.

An assault by more than 1,000 firefighters held the fire to 300 acres and no structures were lost.

About 3,500 buildings, including homes for 9,600 people, a school, a PG&E substation and high-tech commercial buildings now occupy the area covered by the Hanly Fire and Nunn's Canyon Fire in Sonoma Valley. Both started on Sept. 21, 1964 and together burned 65,800 acres and more than 100 homes.

Should the twin fires happen again, the damage to buildings and farms could exceed $1 billion and the firefighting costs would run into the millions, according to a scenario contained in the Sonoma County Hazard Mitigation Plan of 2011.

Current firefighting techniques might curtail the two fires, the scenario suggests, and Hoffmann noted that numerous vineyards now in the Hanly Fire's path might slow down a blaze over the same terrain today.

But with a strong northeast wind, the phenomenon that drives the area's worst wildfires, "all bets are off" he said.

Fire fuels quickly recover in burned-over areas. Dry grass can ignite every year; dead and downed forest litter accumulates in six or seven years; brush rebounds in about 20 years.

"California is made to burn," Turbeville said.

About 33,900 people who live outside the county's cities — representing 7 percent of the total population — are in areas "potentially at risk of wildland fires," the hazard mitigation plan says.

There are about 12,600 buildings in areas with "high and very high risk of wildfires," with an estimated replacement value of $4.8 billion, the plan says.

The county has four "historic wildfire corridors," including the Hanly Fire area, Sonoma Valley (scene of the Cavedale fires in 1925 and 1966), the Geysers (with fires in 1988, 1999 and 2004 that covered a total of 22,000 acres) and the Guerneville area (hit by major fires in 1923 and 1961, the latter burning 5,800 acres, 18 homes and $500,000 worth of timber.

In Santa Rosa, about one-fourth of the city's residents live within four moderate, high and very high severity fire zones, mostly hilly, wooded areas all east of Highway 101.

Two of the zones bracket Annadel State Park: One of them east of Summerfield Road, the other along Highway 12 including parts of Oakmont.

The largest zone covers a broad swath of northeast Santa Rosa, including all of Fountaingrove and the Chanate Road, Hidden Valley and Brush Creek areas down to Highway 12. The zone incorporates the area threatened by the

Hanly fire.

The fourth zone lies east of Calistoga Road from Montecito Boulevard down to Highway 12, including the St. Francis and Skyhawk areas.

New homes in the fire zones must meet building code requirements for fire-resistant materials for siding, roofing and decks, with protected eaves to keep out windblown embers, an Achilles heel during wildfires.

Homeowners in the Fountaingrove II subdivision, built in the Hanly fire's path, trim a firebreak around their properties every year, earning the city's lone designation as a "firewise community," Fire Chief Mark McCormick said.

The city also relies on a "mutual threat zone" wildfire response system that unites the Santa Rosa, Bennett Valley and Rincon Valley departments, along with Cal Fire, in a multi-agency response to any fire in their combined area.

A wildfire could blow into the city from Annadel Park, the Bennett Valley Heights or almost any direction, the chief said, acknowledging that the dry, northeast winds pose the greatest threat.

"You can never totally protect against a wildfire," McCormick said.

Out in the hills at Pepperwood Preserve, the grass is kept short by grazing cattle and Douglas fir saplings are culled from the oak woodlands to protect the established oaks.

The hilly forest, home to mountain lions, bobcats, deer, foxes, coyotes, skunks and jackrabbits, has fully recovered from the onslaught of the Hanly fire.

"We're back to very similar conditions as in 1964," Michael Gillogly said.

(You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:
  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.